There was a good and feisty turnout for this event, which was part of a piece of research that the WRC and Voice4Change England have been commissioned to do by the Office for Civil Society (OCS). This research will provide advice to Government on: the challenges that inequalities present to the Big Society agenda and how to address them; and the opportunities for tackling inequalities that the Big Society agenda offers.
The event was a chance to join together as equalities focused organisations to talk about how we, as a sector, can work in partnership to influence and engage with these programmes so that they benefit the vulnerable and marginalised groups that we all support.
Sheila Battersby, Policy Manager for the Local Intelligence Team at the OCS spoke first and gave an overview of Big Society policies and programmes. This was followed by presentations about 3 particular Big Society programmes. First up was Ian Beason, Programmes Manager at the Community Development Foundation, who was talking about the Community First Fund, then it was Victoria Westhorp from the OCS and Martha Earley who were talking about Local Integrated Services and how this is working in Kingston. Lastly was Laurence Walker from Locality who was talking about Community Organisers.
There was plenty of opportunity for questions and discussions about the programmes (and the Big Society more generally) and the implications for equalities organisations. While the aim of the event was to come up with solutions and recommendations for overcoming the barriers to engagement with the Big Society, there was undoubtedly a lot of frustration and scepticism in the room that needed to be aired first– especially when it became clear that the Community First Panels and Fund would have no equalities monitoring, and the Community Organisers scheme was perceived to be untenable financially for many voluntary organisations that are expected to host them.
While the broader context of the cuts and the anxiety this was causing for the future of the sector was the spectre haunting all of the discussions, the resourcefulness of the organisations still shone through. Ideas for follow up actions included: linking up with and supporting unions and other organisations that have a solid anti-cuts evidence base; taking the issue of the cuts and the impact on smaller/equalities organisation to Government, perhaps with a formal Enquiry; harnessing the strength of the Equality Act to hold public bodies to account; recommending that the government create a Big Society action plan (like LGBT action plan) but which focuses on promoting equality; extend the timelines for the Transforming Infrastructure Fund; and starting a campaign to encourage philanthropy for the equalities sector.
WRC will be using the recommendations from participants to inform their report to Government, as well as discussing how we can take forward some of the sector wide issues. We’ll keep you posted on any developments!